Immigration and Politics, Mid-19th Century Edition

Some political observations. Reviewing my notes to the Protestant Crusade (partially reviewed here), came across this rather modern sounding situation:

The political ramifications of alien invasion, were as important as the social. With the foreigner came corruption and graft to change the traditional routine of American politics. In this process the immigrants at first were only tools of the natives. Befuddled aliens were met at the docks by politicians, they were placed under the care of minor bosses, they were fraudulently naturalized by machine-controlled judges, and they were marched to the polls to vote as they were told. Little wonder that these foreign-born gained a faulty picture of a democracy or that they soon entered into the political game themselves. Thus corrupt-foreign politicians were created; Irish and German names began to appear on the ballots, and natives, long accustomed to rule, found their position challenged by officeholders and voters who appreciated the opportunities of democracy more than its responsibilities.

This situation was particularly alarming because the rapid increase of foreign voters made it appear inevitable that they would eventually rule the land. T hus in Boston between. 1850 and 1855 the native-born voters increased 14.72 per cent; those of foreign birth 194.64 per cent. Although the foreign-born in Boston were accumulating at a more rapid rate than elsewhere, the same story could be told to a lesser degree of every city and state in the north, and many Americans agreed with a nativistic speaker when he prophesied that “in fifteen years the foreign population will exceed the native.” Much apprehension was occasioned by the fact that in many communities the even balance between the parties placed the foreign-born in control although they were outnumbered by natives. Each party recognized the importance of the immigrant vote and bid for it openly by offering minor offices and other political plums to alien leaders who held the balance of power. Tangible proof of this situation seemingly was provided in the election of 1852 when the foreign-born helped elect a Democrat, Franklin Pierce, to the presidency. When Pierce named a Catholic postmaster general and appointed several foreign-born Democrats to diplomatic posts, nativists and Whigs were convinced that he was paying an election debt and that immigrant voters controlled the United States. Actually, the foreign-born voted the Democratic ticket consistently, and carping against the immigrant’s political power came largely from disgruntled Whigs or indelible nativists. Millard Fillmore was speaking as both when he declared that the foreign vote was “fast demoralizing the whole country ; corrupting the ballot box — that great palladium of our liberty — into an unmeaning mockery where the rights of native born citizens are voted away by those who blindly follow their mercenary and selfish leaders.” Yet some truth probably lay behind these charges, for impartial observers agreed that “political parties seek . . .[the immigrants’] support; they are taken into account in the framing of political platforms, in the acts of legislatures, in the policy of governors.” Certainly nativists could see more truth than humor in the current joke concerning the schoolboy who was called upon to parse “America.” “America,” he stated, “is a very common noun, singular number, masculine gender, critical case, and governed by the Irish.”

The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860, R. A. Billington
I highlighted and noted a few interesting passages in this work.

One thing I appreciate about this book is that while Billington duly notes the obvious slander and calumny leveled against Catholics, he doesn’t ignore the very real problems immigration caused. It would be unpopular to note today that, although the Know-Nothings were no doubt bigots, they had some legitimate concerns: immigrants were being illegally used by the Democratic Party to fraudulently ‘win’ elections.

Of course, one could separate the issues: it wasn’t immigration that caused the Democratic Party in the 1840s and 50s to commit massive voter fraud. The Know Nothings could have focused on passing and enforcing laws against voter fraud and simply left the immigrants out of the equation. But note this line: “they were fraudulently naturalized by machine-controlled judges.” Those very well might be the judges you’d need to get any anti-fraud enforcement past. So, from a tactical perspective, the Know-Nothings approach of reducing immigration and making it much harder for an immigrant to become naturalized might be a rational reaction to political reality rather than mere anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic) bigotry. In the end, the political power of the Know-Nothings lasted all of 2 years, 1855-1856.

The party would, of course, frame any such attempt to combat fraud as an attack on immigrants themselves, rallying both legally and fraudulently naturalized immigrants to oppose it.

Or one might think. Immigrants might not be a homogeneous block. Just as, in the real world today, one regularly meets naturalized immigrants who are appalled at the very idea of open borders, who took the challenge of legally entering the country, legally gaining residency, and finally becoming naturalized citizens and voting as a good and necessary process, there were plenty of 19th century immigrants who realized they were being paid off in crumbs for supporting a regime getting fat off graft and tried to fight it.

Tammany Hall would call on local bosses to have their immigrant thugs beat the hell out of any such dissidents. Some were murdered.

One question always worth asking when looking at history: when did it stop? Related: why and how? Tammany Hall had a 150+ year run. It seems to have just petered out sometime in the 1960s. Did it? Or rather, was Tammany Hall just the face of deeper corruption, a corruption that continued under different management? Since its mob ties were obvious during its later years, I’d suspect it’s still there, functionally. But at least its public demise can be tied to losing elections and having its public leaders disgraced. In other words, there’s a real sense in which it can be said that Tammany Hall is no more.

The Chicago Outfit, on the other hand, is claimed to be no more, because… it just isn’t. Never mind that anybody who is anybody in Chicago politics is at best one or two steps removed from the patronage of made man Fred Roti – his ‘legacy’ is all the people whose political careers he started in Chicago. There are no such things in The City on the Make as independent candidates – who get elected. But we’re supposed to believe, somehow, that the most corrupt political machine in American history just kind of went away? Does anyone believe this?

Another passage. Here, Archbishop John Hughes of New York is facing a dilemma: all public school funds in New York City were distributed by the Public School Society, which funded only schools unacceptable to Catholics. These schools promoted Protestantism through both the use of the King James Bible and, more important, texts that routinely denounced the Church and framed Protestantism as a victorious battle against the Whore of Babylon and an unalloyed good.

First, Hughes asked for a share of the funds for his Catholic schools, as Catholics paid into the fund but could not in good conscience benefit from it. This went over as you might expect. Then, he tried to get New York State law extended to NYC, which would have ended the Public School Society and moved the funding question to state level, where Hughes had some sympathetic supporters, including the governor. Both the current political parties – the Whigs and the Democrats – opposed him, although, as the section above makes clear, the Democrats owed their power to the Catholic immigrant vote. So, in the run up to the 1841 elections:

Hughes realized that the Catholic cause would be disastrously defeated unless drastic action were taken and he determined to play a bold card. Catholic voters were called together at a meeting at Carroll Hall on October 30, four days before the election. There Hughes addressed them, recalling that they had been refused satisfaction by both major parties and that their only hope lay in putting an independent ticket in the field. Before the meeting adjourned, the names of a group of candidates were submitted and Catholics were urged to support them. In all probability Hughes planned this move as a threat to force the Democratic party into line, but in this he was sadly disappointed for the day after the Carroll Hall meeting the Democratic candidates publicly
announced that they were now unanimously agreed that any change in the school system was unwise. Hughes was thus forced to carry his ticket into the election, even though he detested a separate Catholic party and believed that all action should be through the regular party channels.

In the main, however, Hughes was not completely dissatisfied with the turn of events. He realized, as did other political leaders of the day, that the immigrant voters held a balance of power and that their diversion from Democratic ranks might well spell defeat for that party. If the Democrats could be defeated, they would not only be rebuffed for deserting their former supporters but would be made to know that such support was necessary in the future. Hughes’ views were justified by the election returns. The Whigs swept the polls, going into office with a majority of 290 votes over their opponents, but if the 2,200 voters who supported the Catholic ticket had given their votes to the Democrats,
that party would have won an easy victory. Hughes had demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Democrats could not afford to cast off their Catholic supporters if they wanted success.

The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860, R. A. Billington

So an American Archbishop leads his people against both parties, primarily to show them that they could not ignore the needs and desires of Catholics and still hold power.

What a concept.

Compare with what Cardinal Dolan said a few years ago in an opinion piece at the WSJ, about the attitude of Catholics when he (and I) were growing up (behind a paywall!):

“I’m a pastor, not a politician, and I’ve certainly had spats and disappointments with politicians from both of America’s leading parties. But it saddens me, and weakens the democracy millions of Americans cherish, when the party that once embraced Catholics now slams the door on us.”

“The dignity and sanctity of human life, the importance of Catholic schools, the defense of a baby’s civil rights… [are] …widely embraced by Catholics. This often led Catholics to become loyal Democrats. I remember my own grandmother whispering to me, ‘We Catholics don’t trust those Republicans.'”

He just noticed this in 2018?

Once you’ve established that you don’t trust one of two parties and therefore won’t vote for them, the party you do trust can safely ignore you. Hughes understood this basic political fact; Dolan came to understand it about 100 years too late.

Some things change, but underlying political realities are not among them.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Immigration and Politics, Mid-19th Century Edition”

  1. As one who lives in NJ, I can assure you thst Tammany Hall politics runs the country today.

    My dad was the mayor of my small town in 2004 and is a town committeeman now. One thing you quickly learn is that the corruption stretches all the way down, top to botrom.

    I need to be very careful how I put this but let’s just say a corrupt politician at a small town near me had ties going all the way up to the governor, and is a major player today…in the opposite political party of the governor he had ties with.

    There are no parties in NJ. There is a corrupt cabal of politicians controlling everything, and their ONLY checks are the few good men at the lowest levels who are smart enough to oppose them in a way that won’t get them targeted. My father is very skilled at playing nice with everyone; he makes a lot of enemies, but as time passes they invariably gravitate back to him when they realize he is that true unicorn, a man who is there because he is trying to do good by the people and not to gain power. This makes it hard to stay mad at him.

    At the same time, he needs to be very, very careful not to make certain people mad. They can destroy you.

    A true story, again, with VERY vague details:

    A former mayor of my town once directly opposed this corrupt politician I mentioned. He was different from other people because he was actually a lawyer, and was not afraid of being ruined through lawsuits like us regular joes.

    He ended his time in our town in total disgrace: Moving away after being caught 15 miles over the speed limit drunk driving, with rumors floating around that he was having homosexual affairs.

    How do you think news of the ticket got out? Want to bet how far he was over the legal limit? Why do you think news of the affairs (true or not) spread?

    This is the reality of NJ. And there’s no real way out without a Trump who can break the system. Christie pretended to be that guy, but he was a fraud.

  2. Until two weeks ago, I had lived in Oregon my whole life, and politics there is a machine. I don’t know who is ultimately running the machine, but the man who runs the Republican Party in Oregon, from behind the scenes and unanswerable to anyone I know of, runs a conference every year where Republican members go to discuss politics and tell their leaders what they want. One year it was decided the main topics up for discussion were going to be “gay ‘marriage'” and marijuana legalization. During a rambling speech that covered a lot of territory, the kingmaker announced that Republicans in Oregon should be all in favor of both, just as they should be all for abortion.

    Later, when those topics were up for vote, a bunch of people arrived (with passes and name tags, meaning they had ostensibly paid to be there) just for those votes. And the Oregonian got its story saying the Republicans in Oregon were in favor of both. Every time some county or district outside of Portlandia puts up a local politician against abortion they inevitably fizzle out in the primary, in spite of a great deal more grassroots support–I assume because they do not have the people counting the votes.

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